Harriet Harman at Wimbledon this summer. Photo: Getty
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The problem with Harriet Harman’s proposed gambling tax

Labour think the levy can be used to fund elite sports development as well as grass-roots sports. So, they must be hoping for a lot of gambling in order to generate the sums needed.

Labour’s latest big idea to sort out sport is a betting levy. The shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, and shadow sports minister, Clive Efford, are very keen to promote the idea, the centrepiece of an ambitious “sport for all” approach unveiled in one of the policy documents we’re sure to see more of in the run-up to the general election.

It has a handy moral element, something Labour is still strangely keen on despite the damage done to the moral approach by that arch moraliser Tony Blair. “We believe it is right,” said Efford, “that businesses that make money from sport should contribute to sport”. It’s the kind of “we’re against sin” statement that’s recognisable to anyone familiar with the grandstanding approach encouraged by political conferences; a nice general concept without much attention to specifics. And one that falls apart under serious examination.

No doubt Labour would say a tremendous amount of wonk-power has gone into working the policy out and I do hesitate to bash the idea when at least it leans in a more progressive direction than the awful coalition – although that sets a pretty low base. But I can’t get away from the fact the idea is fundamentally flawed. What’s more, it avoids the real issues.

Harman flagged up the gambling levy as something that can help fund community facilities and treat gambling addiction. So, in order to stop people gambling so much, we need people to gamble enough to fund programmes that stop them gambling too much.

Both Harman and Efford reckon a betting levy could be used to stop people gambling so much and to fund community facilities. Which immediately sets up a problem. Because if a situation is established in which community sports facilities increasingly rely on funds generated by a betting levy, reducing the amount of money spent on gambling will eventually reduce the amount of money spent on community sports facilities.

The trouble with basing political policy on such an unscientific and subjective concept as morals is that the intellectual basis of the argument tends not to stack up. Which is the case in this instance. Do we want people to gamble, or not? And how do we decide what is enough gambling and what is too much? How do we compare the burden borne by the individual with the benefit to society?

Harman and Efford also reckon the betting levy can be used to fund elite sports development as well as grass-roots sports. So, they must be hoping for a lot of gambling in order to generate the sums needed. Perhaps they will divert some of the funds from the programmes used to stop people from gambling too much in order to stop those programmes being so successful that they reduce the amount of money generated through gambling to fund elite sport, community sport and any other part of sport that gets tossed in.

Making the interests of sport and the interests of gambling pretty similar, if not the same, is – frankly – bonkers. That doesn’t mean I take a puritanical attitude to betting. I’m partial to a cheeky flutter from time to time, and I enjoy my annual, and usually successful, efforts to stay ahead of the game during my annual jolly boys outing to The Oaks at Epsom, one the finest days out sport offers.

But that doesn’t mean I am not uncomfortable with the sheer volume of betting noise that surrounds sport. Betting companies advertise at what seems every opportunity, with one company selling gambling as a lifestyle choice for wannabe chaps, and another turning dear old Ray Winstone from national treasure to a figure you would never tire of punching. Although maybe I should change that to “never tire of seeing someone else punching” in case he’s reading this.

The point is you don’t have to be a puritan to worry about how all-pervasive gambling is becoming. As gambling around sport grows, so does the risk of fixing, or at least the perception of a heightened risk of fixing. I’ve said many times before that sport is a successful commercial proposition because people believe in the fundamental honesty of the competition. If sport is not seen as honest, it’s not seen as sport. That’s why, for example, America’s National Football League forbids adverts for Vegas during NFL games. It recognises that a responsible sport governing body needs to do more than look for a tick in the box after the question “Are you going to give us money?’ when choosing who it works with.

Labour’s plans have been denounced as “a gimmick” by the Conservatives, because they will lead to “higher ticket prices for ordinary people” – a phenomenon the Tories have previously shown absolutely no interest in countering. The criticism is a typically boneheaded response from a party that denies the role a state should play, and comes as no surprise.

The trouble is, Labour’s pushing of the policy also reveals the poverty of its ambition, the extent of its surrender to the kind of forces it was brought into existence to counter. It claims to be serious about wanting betting companies to contribute to society, yet it has yet to show any serious commitment to tackling the industry’s move offshore, because this means it would have to seriously address larger issues of tax avoidance that risk it being accused of being ‘anti-business’.

Labour bangs on about “strong government leadership” to increase participation in sport, to restore playing fields, to increase the amount of time dedicated to sport in schools, to cure obesity and possibly even secure world peace, and yet it underlines its refusal to intervene in the precious market by basing all this on a gambling levy.

If, as Efford claims, the party wants to “empower the people who do most of the work in our local communities to have more influence over how we plan, organise and deliver sport and physical education at local level” it needs to return real powers to local level, and back them with the strong central power of the state to ensure a genuinely national approach that has the greatest effect and utilises economies of scale most efficiently.

It needs to legislate to ensure sporting bodies behave like sporting bodies, and not simply as commercial enterprises. And it needs to stop scuttling back into the shadows every time someone says this means it’s anti-business.

A truly ambitious, genuinely radical but well-grounded policy would, above all, recognise that sport plays an important part in society for reasons of public health, community engagement and, hell, sheer damn pleasure, and that therefore government should properly fund sport, not dream up schemes to slice a bit here and a bit there from the commercial enterprises to which it has ceded control of policy. And, having established that government has both a role and a responsibility to fund sport, it would then be able to argue that sport has a responsibility, in turn, to obey a set of common standards on governance that would solve many of the problems facing many of our sports today.

That is not a radical solution. It is an achievable ambition that would attract popular support.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser